Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Learning to Read & the Need for Theory
One must learn to read. It doesn’t come naturally; it requires explicit instruction. In this context - that is, of this blog devoted to literary criticism and its vicissitudes - reading has a special sense beyond simply, well, reading a text. In its acquired sense, to read means something like to provide commentary and analysis of a text in which its meaning is explicitly stated. The assumption seems to be that there is a meaning - or many meanings - that are there, but not present in the surface of the text. They are hidden somewhere deep inside the text. Reading in this sense too must be learned; it is not natural. Let us call these reading1 and reading2 respectively.
Much of literary theory has to do with the relationship between reading1 and reading2. Typically reading1 leaves no traces of itself in the primary text. By contrast, reading2, by definition, must leave traces, not in the primary text, but in one or more secondary texts framed as commentary on one or more primary texts. Practitioners of reading2 sometimes think of their activity as one of enriching (a somewhat quaint-sounding notion) or providing a deeper understanding of the primary text, perhaps for the benefit of those who engage only in reading1, but certainly for the benefit of other practitioners of reading2. Some practitioners of reading2 even assert that, though the words are different, the meanings they elaborate in their secondary texts really are in the primary texts, in some form. Other practitioners no longer believe that, suspecting that reading2 is, in part, a way of smuggling meanings into texts that come from somewhere else. These critics frame their readings2 in different ways.
I am one of the skeptics. I do not believe that reading2 ever recovers what one encounters in reading1. I do not quite know what the relationship between the two types of reading is. In the long term, I am seeking a way of thinking about literature that dispenses with reading2 while fully engaged with the importance that literature has for individuals and societies. That is to say, I do not think that reading2 is the only way to talk about literary texts.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s only where I’m headed. That’s not where I am now, in this post.
What interests me at the moment is simply to activate a sense of what is involved in learning to perform reading2 and correlatively to remind us that it is an accessory. One of the occupational hazards of the lit crit business is that you are constantly tempted to be a critic while reading any and all texts, seeing any and all plays or movies. You thus begin to lose any sense of simply reading1. Any act of reading1 is potentially an occasion for reading2, leading some even to suspect that reading2 is necessary to reading1.
Let me recall a time when reading1 was all I could do. That’s when I came to love reading.
When I was in my middle teens I picked up a copy of Howard Fast’s historical novel, Spartacus (I don’t remember whether this was before or after I had seen the movie). It was a rather long book, but, as I recall, I read it in a single session that took me through the night. No doubt my mind was making all sorts of inferences while I was reading. When I was done I no doubt had some recollection of the story and could recount it, or fragments of it, and could answer questions about it. But I could not have done anything approaching an acceptable "reading" or "interpretation" of the book. I simply didn’t know how to do that.
It took me two or three years to become fluent in writing 10-page papers containing acceptable readings of individual texts. When I first studied literature in college I was pretty much at the mercy of the last interpretation I had read (or had heard in lecture). I simply didn’t have a conceptual space in which I could arrange and compare two or three readings and make judgments about their relative merits regardless of the order in which I read them. Even when I had built up such a space I found it easier to have someone else "break open" the text for me by providing a reading (which I consumed either through lecture or reading). Once I had encountered one or two readings I could then reason about the text on my own, applying my knowledge of psychology, philosophy, and whatever else to the job.
Thus, in learning to read2 I began by imitating the strategies of my teachers and of the critics I read. I assume, though perhaps I am mistaken in this, that most critics have had to learn their craft in much the same way. We learn a large collection of critical moves, which we then apply to the texts. Some of these moves may be uninformed by any explicit theory while others are explicitly derived from some philosophical, psychological, or social scientific body of thought. It seems to me that this body of inferential moves, and the texts we produce to convey these moves to others, is different from the inferential moves I made while reading Spartacus a year or three before I began learning how to produce explicit interpretations.
We sometimes talk as though these professional modes of reasoning, that is to say reading2, involve the examination of the (largely unconscious) processes of reading1. I doubt that. I think that’s mostly a manner of talking, of framing what reading2 says about primary texts. I am interested in the processes involved in reading1. I see no way to get at them that does not involve a great deal of theory. But not necessarily theory of the sort that is currently taught and read in departments of literature.
How would one do a reading1 of “The Waste Land”? Or Finnegans Wake? Would it even be possible?
I assume the point of the distinction isn’t just that, in reading2, you write something down. What makes it a useful distinction is that a person who reads2 makes a deliberate effort to organize certain choice facts about a work of literature in such a way that she can make general claims about the text. Active and sustained interpretive work.
But if you don’t make a deliberate effort to interpret “The Waste Land” or Finnegans Wake, to form some kind of coherent sense out of the gibberish, you aren’t even reading1. You’re chanting from a script. (The Chinese box comes to mind.)
Certainly there are plenty of people who read difficult modernist poetry without trudging through scholarly articles about it, or even studying it much in college, and so don’t learn how to read2 it by example. The poetry itself demands it. (I think “The Waste Land” taught me more about how to read than any of my professors did—and then Finnegans Wake up and made me rethink everything.)
It’s easy to generalize about literature (and how we read it) as if all of it were the sort of fiction that someone with a different cultural background might easily confuse with nonfiction—fiction that anyone would take for nonfiction if the words “A Novel” on the cover were changed to “A Memoir”—for which first-order pleasure reading is fun and fine. As for “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” or Stein’s blather (or modernist poetry writ large)—that sort of literature isn’t for readers; leave it for the professors to fiddle around with.
Poetry—even stuff that isn’t difficult modernist poetry—is rather different from reading prose. You may read and re-read, do a lot of prep work, meditate on it. Not sure that qualifies as reading2 any more than an actor’s preparation so qualifies. Nor do I see anything wrong with chanting from a script.
As for Finnegan’s Wake and such, you have a point. But I’d be quite happy to have a good empirically grounded model of how it goes with reading1 on a text like, for example, Pride and Prejudice. If that model doesn’t extend to Finnegan’s Wake, that’s OK. That model would still be more powerful than anything we have now.
And then you have oral story-telling, which doesn’t involve reading at all. In what ways are listening to such stories and reading1 alike? And different?
"What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”
Well, Mark Twain could get away with this kind of thing. But isn’t this concern a bit overly melodramatic? You write “In the long term, I am seeking a way of thinking about literature that dispenses with reading2”, presumably because you “do not believe that reading2 ever recovers what one encounters in reading1.” But why would you really want to lose reading2 in favor of reading1?
"(I think “The Waste Land” taught me more about how to read than any of my professors did—and then Finnegans Wake up and made me rethink everything.)”
What did you learn? Why did you rethink?
It seems to me that first order “reading” - call it perception and comprehension, at least at some level - can be fun and enlightening. And that second order consideration, whatever that may be, is for everyone who might be interested. The same with third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and so on, order “readings” and/or actions.
“And then you have oral story-telling, which doesn’t involve reading at all. In what ways are listening to such stories and reading1 alike? And different?”
Crucially, it seems that reading is an experience like many another experience: watching a football game, viewing a TV show, witnessing a thunderstorm. We perceive or do not, and we comprehend or do not to, and we reflect or do not, and we act or do not, etc., based on the experience. And we can do all of these things to many different degrees and to various orders should we choose to, to the extent of our abilities.
Young children respond to stories and they often do so differently one from another, making perceptive and valid observations of various characters and also responding variously based on their perceptions. That seems like interpretation to me. Possibly at a “first” order. And also possibly at a profound, being basic, order. (Perceiving a character’s action to mean, imply, suggest one thing rather than another, for example - I assume that’s what you mean by “interpretation,” at a basic level.)
I sketch this out by way of making the observation that I don’t see much clear differentiation between levels of order being made in this thread.
The only difference I see being explicitly, if not all that clearly, stated is the sort of difference that surely goes without saying: a difference between limited perception and comprehension of a text on the one hand, and some less limited perception and comprehension on the other hand. And/or also some limited reflection and some less limited reflection. All based on various orders of knowledge a person brings to that which is being read. Beyond that, it’s not clear to me what if anything is being specified, though various levels could be made explicit. But of course the orginal post ultimately makes clear that it’s not much interested in exploring such differentiation anyway.
“We sometimes talk as though these professional modes of reasoning, that is to say reading2, involve the examination of the (largely unconscious) processes of reading1. I doubt that. I think that’s mostly a manner of talking, of framing what reading2 says about primary texts.”
May well be.
“I am interested in the processes involved in reading1. I see no way to get at them that does not involve a great deal of theory. But not necessarily theory of the sort that is currently taught and read in departments of literature.”
It’s not clear to me that you’re interested in this - but maybe it’s worth noting that no one has, to this point, discovered a “generative grammar” of storytelling, to my knowledge at least, and I assume to yours.
You say you seek the “processes involved in reading.” But what is “reading”? And does it seem significantly different from “viewing” (a TV show) or “witnessing” (a storm) etc?
Isn’t “reading” - perceiving and comprehending and reflecting upon? So then what can it be said that you seek? What is perceiving? What is comprehending? What is thought? This is where “theory” has always seemed to me to head - direct to philosophy and science - which is great. English Departments should have room for this. But I think that it helps to be clear that it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with literature and reading, or “reading.” And when we try to force it into seeming that it does, I think confusions arise.
Perhaps you sense something of this disconnect, here:
“But not necessarily theory of the sort that is currently taught and read in departments of literature.”
So what do you suggest? Seeking out mathematics-based “generative grammars” of perceiving, of aesthetics? Why not? Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s where such lines of thought - quite interesting - seem to me to lead.
But why would you really want to lose reading2 in favor of reading1?
I don’t want to lose it. But I think we need ways of dealing with literature OTHER THAN reading2. I’m interested in . . . (gulp) . . . more objective ways of analyzing and accounting for literary experience and texts. We will continue to need reading2, but it serves different purposes.
Young children respond to stories and they often do so differently one from another, making perceptive and valid observations of various characters and also responding variously based on their perceptions. That seems like interpretation to me. Possibly at a “first” order. . . .
Not only children. We all chat about books we’ve read and movies we’ve seen. But there’s a difference between such talk and that actual experience. The experience doesn’t require such talk. Something else does. A desire to somehow share reading1 with friends? A need to “calibrate” and “verify” our experiences and impressions against those of others?
I sketch this out by way of making the observation that I don’t see much clear differentiation between levels of order being made in this thread.
Except that you can engage in reading1 without engaging in reading2. If we think of standard informal talk about books and movies—even that in reading groups—as reading2, then perhaps professional lit crit publication is basically an extension and elaboration of that. I think it interesting, for example, that the professionalization of lit crit has involved a stage where differentiating what WE do from the work of AMATEURS and mere REVIEWERS was of paramount importance. Perhaps what WE do is not different in kind from that work, but only in level of elaboration and sophistication. I don’t think that’s quite the case, but that would require another post.
It’s not clear to me that you’re interested in this . . .
But I am, and have been working and publishing on Other Stuff for three decades. When I headed off to graduate school at SUNY Buffalo in the early 1970s I wanted to create a “generative grammar” for Coleridge. That project feel apart. Why? Because we didn’t have the conceptual tools, and still don’t. (I also think that “generative grammar” is the wrong theoretical metaphor. Language isn’t like that, nor is literature.) But I did complete a dissertation on “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory” and have published various articles over the years on various aspects of this project. You can find some of that work here:
I’ve published more recent work in PsyArt:
They are currently reviewing a looong essay in which I outline 15 propositions in what I am calling naturalist literary theory. Some of those propositions are hypotheses subject to empirical test, others are assumptions intended to facilitate the creation of models susceptible of empirical test. Distinguishing between the two is sometimes difficult.
I think that it helps to be clear that it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with literature and reading, or “reading.”
I’m not sure I quite understand what you mean, but I suspect I agree with this. I know quite a bit about cognitive psychology, neuroscience, aspects of evolutionary psychology, and bits and pieces of other stuff. Very little of that seems directly relevant to literature. That is to say, you can’t get very far in literary analysis simply by attempting to APPLY that work to literature. If it were that simple, it would have been done 20 or 30 years ago (people tried). Rather, students of literature have to become familiar with work in these newer psychologies—as I loosly term them—and work at our own methods that are, however, couched in terms commensurate with those of these newer psychologies.
The difficulty of doing this is compounded by the fact that these psychologies come in many flavors and are not mutually compatible. They are a long way from “settling down” into a coherent and uniform psychology.
And then there is the sort of work that Franco Moretti has recently been doing. That doesn’t have much to do with newer psychologies, but seems quite promising. I’ve commented on that work here:
In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line. You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men’s, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature. I would gladly tell all that I know about it, and never paint “No Admittance” on my gate.
- “Economy” from Thoreau’s Walden
Interesting thread… One thing that concerns me as someone who occasionally teaches (writing) and who makes his living as a writer is that our responses to these things can only ever be incomplete, at a conscious level. Thoreau’s remarks (and, for that matter, Walden, which Cavell rightly remarks is a book about books; the act of reading writ large) anticipate for me the reader-side of what Henry James was getting at from the writer-side in “The Art of Fiction,” and that Eliot, later, from the critical side rather pithily summed in his quip, “There is no method but to be very intelligent.”
If you look at the complexity of elements combined to make our experience (of life; of reading; of thinking) any reduction must be accompanied by a loss (Emerson’s Experience counts for a lot here) & so to the extent that we accomplish anything here, it must be accomplished “organically” (James’ term).
I haven’t looked at your piece on Moretti, Bill, but from my brief reading of him (and it’s fascinating stuff), I think one issue at hand is that there isn’t a kind of reducability here (or, if there is, perhaps it’s best to say we can understand the structure of complexity without being able to unbind it, pace Simon’s “Architecture of Complexity"). And isn’t this, in a sense, what you’re getting at with your distinction between Reading1 and Reading2, where we substitute a kind of Reading1 and Reading1’, where the latter is an organic, but deeply attentive and intelligent--but non-reductive--kind of reading (the former, unprimed, what we might call “casual") and Reading2 is a (not necessarily, and perhaps inhibitor of, attentive and intelligent) reductive, n-dimensional perhaps (but where n < possible or important), reading?
"I don’t want to lose it. But I think we need ways of dealing with literature OTHER THAN reading2. I’m interested in . . . (gulp) . . . more objective ways of analyzing and accounting for literary experience and texts. We will continue to need reading2, but it serves different purposes.”
So… you’re trying to develop a kind of neurological reader-response theory that focusses on naive readers? I don’t think that I understand what you’re trying to do.
At any rate, I still think that you’re making an artificial distinction between reading1 and reading2. Both have to be taught; neither are “natural”. When you write “I do not believe that reading2 ever recovers what one encounters in reading1”, I disagree because I don’t think think that there’s anything there to recover. And when you say that “reading2 is not the only way to talk about literary texts”, that seems to be true, but only as part of a false dilemma—if you had started with reading1 through reading100, you wouldn’t even think that you needed to make this claim.
> Not only children. We all chat about books we’ve read and movies we’ve
> seen. But there’s a difference between such talk and that actual
> experience. The experience doesn’t require such talk.
And such talk doesn’t require that experience (of reading literature, in particular). It could be talk about virtually any experience. And so it’s not clear to me how literature can be particularly enlightening to your endeavor of studying the mind. It seems its even mildly elevated level sophistication may distract from less elaborate phenomena that nevertheless are more basic to your pursuit.
> I think that it helps to be clear that it doesn’t necessarily have much
> to do with literature and reading, or “reading.”
> I’m not sure I quite understand what you mean, but I suspect I agree with
Again, I mean that your interest seems to be in the nature of cognition, generally. Whether or not this involves literature seems wholly incidental.
> I know quite a bit about cognitive psychology, neuroscience, aspects
> of evolutionary psychology, and bits and pieces of other stuff. Very little
> of that seems directly relevant to literature. That is to say, you can’t
> get very far in literary analysis simply by attempting to APPLY that work to
> literature. If it were that simple, it would have been done 20 or 30 years
> ago (people tried). Rather, students of literature have to become familiar
> with work in these newer psychologies—as I loosly term them—and work
> at our own methods that are, however, couched in terms commensurate with
> those of these newer psychologies.
In other words, if anyone wishes to study cognitive issues (students of literature or otherwise), there is no (apparent) need to study literature. Thus my comment above. And thus, students of literature only “have” to become familiar with what you suggest if they are interested in studying cognitive issues (the nature of the mind, I assume) but not if they are interested in studying literature - as best I can tell.
I found the accessible Entelechy journal to be interesting and fruitful, as a study of literature, but, like you apparently, I don’t see that it goes much in the direction you seem focused on, the study of the mind. Of course any insights into the mind could shine light on literature, but I don’t see that a study of literature is necessarily of much use in studying the scientific nature of the mind. It may be, but I don’t see any evidence you may be putting forward here that it is.
On the other hand, a lot can be learned from reading literature, even, and I think especially, on the first orders. For as Chomsky says:
“If you want to learn about people’s personalities and intentions, you would probably do better reading novels than reading psychology books. Maybe that’s the best way to come to an understanding of human beings and the way they act and feel, but that’s not science. Science isn’t the only thing in the world, it is what it is...science is not the only way to come to an understanding of things.” “If I am interested in learning about people, I’ll read novels rather than psychology.” “I think the Victorian novel tells us more about people than science ever will...and we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” “We learn from literature as we learn from life; no one knows how, but it surely happens. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry (science), which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope.” “It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do.”
Your classification of reading styles seems too coarse, Bill. In your first comment, faced with poetry reading, you admit you’re “not sure that qualifies as reading2,” but then go on as if it’s not reading at all ("any more than an actor’s preparation"). That seems an iffy assumption in a site for literary scholars and critics.
What you call “Reading1” appears to be (based on your _Spartacus_ anecdote) the current default style of reading for comfortably literate North Americans: a silent gulping down of “content” (contents sold by volume not by weight). To quote Ron Silliman: “In its ultimate form, the consumer of a mass market novel such as Jaws stares at a ‘blank’ page (the page also of the speedreader) while a story appears to unfold miraculously of its own free will.”
What you call “Reading2” is reading not for its own sake but for production.
You leave out what I’ll call “Reading0”, which notices the “surface” of writing—the language, the non-argument-points—for its own sake (or because the reader has no choice). It’s slower. It may be spoken or subvocalized. It often involves re-reading. It’s the way people used to read the Bible, or Shakespeare, or pretty much anything.
As I’ve mentioned in several contexts, I remember around age 12 or 13 more or less consciously making the decision to downshift from Reading1 to Reading0. At which point I started to become a literary reader. No one made me do that, and no critical production came of it for many years. And even then I write relatively little criticism compared to the amount of Reading0 I do. (I can still move into Reading1 mode, by the way, although I doubt I ever approach my 12-year-old peak page speed.)
Your undeclared assumption seems to be that Reading2 ("utilitarian reading") is more like Reading0 ("literary reading") than it is like Reading1 ("mainstream reading"). But pressure to produce papers, exam answers, reviews, or monographs does not, in itself, encourage greater pleasure or understanding. Instead, some tools might just be added to utilitarian Reading2: skimming, highlighting, and snatching at legitimizing jargon or confirmatory quotes.
(Oh, and I agree with you that contemporary neurosciences, cognitive sciences, linguistics, and social psychology are important to aesthetics, and that their importance is more as philosophical foundation than as generator of interpretations.)
If I do background reading, read and reread, and meditate on Pride and Prejudice, that counts as reading2, right? Whereas if I do the same for poetry it’s reading1? What about more readable poets like Frost?
I’m not sure where the professionalized apparatus begins and where ordinary rational alertness ends.
I’m also not sure why difficult literature must be marginal—why not exemplary? Untainted by the conventions of nonfiction? (A reductio, but still—)
Is the psychological vocabulary really indispensible to literary studies? Like quantitative historical vocabularies, or evolutionary biological vocabularies, or sociological vocabularies, or Theory vocabularies, it seems like something literary scholars could take or leave. Brain states etc. are not inherently more objective—or for that matter, interesting—than rational interpretation.
In the same way that in history departments folks might study the historical impact of literary works, and in philosophy departments folks might study how metaphors do/don’t mean, I think what you’re proposing belongs first and foremost in the psychology departments.
Some literary scholars might love it. But I think the implication is, indeed, that reducing literature to an adjunct of psychology is the only way to study literature in good faith. That just seems wrong to me.
Here’s something many of you need to answer for: “Ser Alliser Thorne walked from the room so stiffly it looked as though he had a dagger up his butt.” (Game of Thrones, 172.)
I don’t want to hear about style indirect libre or any bullshit like that. Promise me that nothing like this is going to happen again, or I’m not going to read the damn books.
Harold Bloom also says that Shakespeare has plumbed the psyche more deeply than Freud, or something to that effect.
Thinking about the 15 minutes or so of focused reading it takes for my brain to acclimate itself to Emily Dickinson’s (very, very bizzare) language-world, I suspect that rather than rising up from reading1 to reading2 I am actually sinking from reading1 to reading0. Her poetry moreso than any other I know seems to demand it, and to resist attempts to be read2.
How many kinds of reading?
Starting with remarks by Jennifer Carr and continuing with remarks by Tony Christini, Ray Davis, joel turnipseed, Rich Puchalsky, Ray Davis, and Lennet Daigle, the issue that’s come up most frequently is that of how many kinds of reading there are. While that’s not surprising, in retrospect, that’s not what I had expected. That is to say, when I wrote that piece I wasn’t thinking about starting an empirical classification of what we do when we read. What I was up to is much more like proposing ideal types in a thought experiment, to which I’ll return in a different post.
But, since many of you reacted as though I were offering an empirical classification, how should I respond to that? I’m going to duck the issue. That is, if it’s an empirical classification you want, then we should do some research and find out just what people do.
What kind of research should we, could we, do? The most obvious thing that occurs to me would be an ethnography of reading. Interview a lot of people about their reading and see what they say. For all I know, this sort of thing has been done. If so, I don’t know of that work. If I were to do the research, I mind choose My Music (Crafts, Cavecchi, and Keil 1993) as a model. The book presents interviews with maybe 40, 50, 60 people about their music listening; the subjects range in age from 4 to 83.
This is not the only thing you can do, but it’s the most straight-forward. Psychologists have devices that track eye-movements while people are looking at pictures or reading texts. The idea is to correlate the eye motions with the text and thus get some idea of the temporal course of reading. This sort of thing could be done as well, and it could be coupled with an interview. It could also be coupled with EEG and-or brain imaging. [I’m not sure there’s any point in neural research without some way of knowing where the subject is in the text from one moment to the next.] Finally, one could ask to report on their thinking as they are doing it and then analyze these protocols. This technique has been used extensively in cognitive science for a wide variety of tasks.
Both joel turnipseed and Jennifer Carr brought up the issue of reductionism. In the case of Franco Moretti’s recent work I don’t think it’s much of an issue. Moretti makes no claims that he’s doing anything like full justice to the texts. He’s doing something that’s rude and crude and lots of it. That’s fine and it does tell us something about literature in the large, but it’s not meant as a substitute for reading2. The same could be said for the rather different work of Colin Martindale (Romantic Progression, The Clockwork Muse). He does quick and dirty analysis of lots of texts and plots the results over time.
But reductionism involves other issues. And here’s where it gets tough. One could certainly say that my recent work on “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bower” (in PsyArt) is reductionist because I’m reducing those poems to psychology, even to neuropsychology. This is a serious issue, but not one I want to discuss here and now. I will say, however, that whether or not those two articles are reductionist in some fatal and profound sense, each of them involves sustained and detailed analysis of the poetry, perhaps more detail than any other work on those poems. I think we need more work involving a comparable attention to detail.
Relationship between cognition and literature
Finally (for this post anyhow) both Tony Cristini and Jennifer Carr have brought up the issue of the relationship between the study of cognition and the study of literature. I’ve already made one reply to Tony on this and, judging by his reply, that was a failure. I’m not sure that I can do better. But let me make a few remarks.
Whatever the proper relationship is, it is something that’s going to be negotiated in practice. At the moment there isn’t all that much practical work out there, at least not in relation to all that work that’s been done and that’s being done on literature. The best way to find out what I think that relationship should be would be to read my work, especially my practical criticism. I realize that that’s a rather strenuous task, but that’s the best I can do. High-level generalizations are a fine way to summarize a body of work that is richly developed and has a stabilized methodology. That’s not the case with the newer psychologies and literature. We don’t have a large body of work along those lines, certainly not enough to have a stabilized methodology or methodologies.
Secondly, I think the study of literary form is critical, and you aren’t going to find that in any psychology, nor, for that matter, will you find much of it in literary studies. Formalism, yes, but that’s not the same as the description and analysis of literary form. That’s something that seems to be taken for granted or is simply regarded as peripheral. As for why I think that, alas, I must again refer you to my practical work for examples. The 15 hypotheses essay currently under review at PsyArt, however, contains a theoretical statement on this issue.
Thirdly, it’s clear to me that much of the excitement in the cognitive sciences and the neuro-sciences derives from the notion of computation. That’s what we need to come to grips with. For me one of the key things about computation is that all real computation takes place in time. Stanley Fish raised this issue in his “Affective Stylistics” essay, and in quasi-computational terms as well (he talked of a machine. So far as I know, however, he never went on to elaborate on the metaphor in any deep way nor has anyone else – though Marie-Laure Ryan has written an interesting book on Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (Indiana 1991). I think we need to do better.
Finally, my sense of the importance of form is linked to my sense of the importance of computation (as metaphor, as model). I regard the formal properties of literary works as cues to the underlying computational processes. That’s what I say, in some detail, in the 15 hypotheses article.
Well put; I see your point about the “number of ways of reading” objections. The only thing I’d want to add is that I think we’re discussing “reductionism” (or “reduce") in two distinct senses.
On the one hand, it’s true, no one should expect an empirical psychological study of reading to capture every last phenomenological/logical/formal/sociological aspect of reading or of any particular work of literature. (No one can reasonably expect that of any approach to literary studies. This isn’t a field that lends itself to completeness.) Call this “practical reductionism.”
On the other hand, there’s the reduction of one discipline to another (i.e. literary studies to psychology), “discipinary reductionism.” Ordinarily it wouldn’t come up, except that you assert:
“[S]tudents of literature have to become familiar with work in these newer psychologies—as I loosly term them—and work at our own methods that are, however, couched in terms commensurate with those of these newer psychologies.”
Do you really mean the “have to”? I would assume that it was just a bit of flourish, except that you’ve made similar assertions in other recent posts, so I’m honestly not sure. Do we also have to know and make our work tidily intertranslatable with analytic philosophy of language? Modal logic? History and sociology? Comparative religion? Etc.?
If not, why should psychology provide the Ur-vocabulary? If so, isn’t this an invitation to shallow eclecticism?
One of the ways Professor Moretti can get around the charge of reductionism is that his work is so internally pluralistic. (For those who don’t know his work, he makes use of psychology, but also evolutionary biology, geography, and so on, and on.)
Another is that he would never make a statement like the one I quoted above. (Well, maybe he would; but he would only mean it rhetorically.) He wouldn’t demand more than cocktail knowledge of *all* potentially relevant interdisciplinary vocabularies—as daunting a project as trying to read every Victorian novel ever written, which is exactly the sort of absurd and unrealizable ambition that Professor Moretti’s work is geared toward deflating. I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t claim primacy for psychology’s terminological repertoire as The Profession Jargon for literature students to learn. His advocacy for incorporating empirical models into literary studies certainly doesn’t stop at psychological models. (The majority of his current research has zero to do with psychology, in fact.) Thus: no disciplinary reductionism.
But if you only meant that students of literature who do work in reader response and/or psychoanalysis ought to join into a conversation with contemporary psychology, then I think you’re right.
But I’m not sure what you meant. So consider this a longwinded way of asking: What did you mean by that?
Interesting post, Jennifer. Here’s a long-winded answser.
I think disciplinary reductionism has two facets: 1) conceptual adequacy and intellectual cogency, and 2) the practical institutional business of “What do I need to know to practice my craft?” These are obviously related, but the emphasis is different. The first matter is indifferent to practical matters and is concerned exclusively with the overall nature of the world and the requirements that places on the nature of our explanations of the world. The second matter is somewhat independent of those metaphysical issues. After all, different positions are recognized and accepted in the academy, even within single departments. Whatever you views on the metaphysics, you still face practical issues of knowledge production: What concepts and skills are necessary, how much time do you have to learn them, what collaborative arrangements are possible?
Though I’d hoped to side-step the conceptual business – which is the “serious issue” I’d hoped to avoid – I’ll say a few words about it, and then go on to the practical business.
The Naturalist Study of Literature
Since Moretti’s recent work is already in play here, let’s say a little more about it. It seems to me that what he’s discovered—about the “origins” and course of the novel in various places, about the changing “morphology” of certain traits (clues in detective fiction, the use of free indirect discourse) – is important in the study of literature, but it cannot be accounted for or “reduced to” psychological matters in any straight-forward way that I’m aware of. Moretti is dealing with collective phenomena and the explanation will have to be in collective terms: how do groups of people behave, and why? It study of literature is, in part, the study of a collective phenomena. But not only do we have to think about groups, we have to think about stasis and change over long periods of time, decades, centuries, millennia. This is obvious enough.
If I emphasize the newer psychologies, that’s because most of my work has involved the analysis of specific texts – often in considerable detail – and because I have a general interest in the psychological mechanisms involved in understanding and responding to texts. One of the things I have done is look at the cognitive (and other) structures at different moments in time and compared them; this is most obvious in my essay on The Evolution of Narrative and the Self. But that’s just snapshots of texts that emerged at different times. That doesn’t involve collective human behavior in any interesting way, much less explain why different cognitive structures exist at different times.
One of the things we need to do is come up with concepts, in effect, to bridge the gap between the kind of work I’m doing through careful consideration of individual texts and what Moretti’s doing with large bodies of texts published over long periods of time. Three chapters in my book on music (2, 3, and 4 of Beethoven’s Anvil) deal with music as a collective phenomenon, but I don’t think that what I did with music can simply be transferred to literature. Why? Because literature has to cope with the arbitrariness of the sign, while music (in my view) does not (unless there are lyrics involved). I do a little work on this problem in my Entelechy article, and a bit more in my 15-hypotheses piece. But that’s only a start. There’s much more to be done.
For what it’s worth, Moretti and I independently found our way to the work of economist Arthur de Vany, which I mention briefly in my Entelechy piece. De Vany is interested in the economics of the movie business and, in particular, in the fact that the success or failure of movies cannot be predicted by anything we know within, say, a week after the movie has been released. Once release, of course, the fate of a movie is in the hands of a group of people, the potential audience. There is, of course, a somewhat smaller group of people trying very hard to control audience behavior. What de Vany’s analysis shows is that the efforts of that small group are not very effective.
So much for that.
First I note that what I’ve said is that our work should be “couched in terms [that are] commensurate with those of these newer psychologies.” One might go a long way toward achieving that goal by, for example, taking the course on The Brain and the Book that Norm Holland’s been teaching at U. of Florida. It might not, however, be sufficient to read the book that Holland’s written while teaching that course. It’s not that I think anything’s wrong with the book – I’ve read drafts of most chapters – but simply that Holland has already digested the material and so puts you at one remove from the literature students in the course had to read.
That course isn’t available to everyone and, if you’ve finished your degree and are out and about in academia, you can’t take courses anyhow. You’ve got to teach and publish. But I mention that course as a rough yardstick for the sort of effort I think is involved. A generation from now anyone with an undergraduate degree in the humanities or social sciences may have that material in their repertoire.
More immediately, up-thread I suggested empirical research on the types of reading. You don’t need any particular knowledge of the newer psychologies to do the ethnographic surveys. The instrumented work (eye-tracking, EEG) is more specialized, but there you could “acquire” much of the expertise by collaborating with specialists in those research techniques. This kind of work can be done now. All that’s needed is a sense that it is important, a will to do it, and the time in which to exercise that will.
The same is true for the sort of work I’ve suggested in terms of studying online communities of fans. The material is here on the web; you just have to go there, gather it in, and start examining it. If I were to engage in that sort of work, I’d partner with someone familiar with the tools and techniques of corpus linguistics. This involves using computers to analyze large bodies of textual material, millions of words and more. Those tools have become quite sophisticated and would allow you to get a handle on the types of issues discussed and typical patterns of interaction. Of course, you want to analyze these things in the context of what actually happens in the texts (or TV show or movie). Computer tools won’t help you here; you’ll have to do that “manually.”
This too can be done now. All it requires is a belief that these is something important to be learned by attending to what people say about fictions that engage them. It’s one thing to talk about interpretive communities as idealized objects in a theoretical discussion. It is quite a different matter to examine the activities of such communities. The existence of websites devoted to movies, TV shows, books, comics, and so forth means that a lot of primary material is available at relatively little cost in time and effort for acquisition.
As for the sort of thing I do in the analysis of texts, that really doesn’t require extensive knowledge of these newer psychologies. I use that knowledge in trying to explain what I find through analysis, but the analysis itself is a different matter.* It requires a good feel for literary materials – which you can get only through experience with those materials – and some idea of what you’re after. But that’s it. You can do the analysis without having to attempt the post-analytic explanation.
If I were in a position to teach textual analysis, I’d run a workshop. There would be a prerequisite for getting in, say, prior courses in literature, plus, say, Norm’s course or my permission. Much of the course would be workshopping primary texts that students were interested in. I’d start by presenting some of my own published work as examples, and perhaps some published examples by others. But I’d hope that, say, a third of the way into the course that we’d be working on texts suggested by students and that students would be taking the lead in making observations.
In general, I think we need a lot more descriptive and analytical work. The work I’ve done, and some of the work I’ve seen by others (e.g. Mary Douglas, Richard Cureton, Haj Ross) leads me to believe that we really don’t know our texts very well. And I think that is in part because reading2 is couched as a search for meaning, and somehow this search for meaning doesn’t require precise and detailed characterization of the texts that embody that meaning. We don’t know our materials.
*My initial plunge into the cognitive sciences was motivated, in part, by a desire to explain what I had found in analyzing “Kubla Khan.” My analytic work was motivated mostly by old-style structuralism – Levi-Strauss, Jakobson, before post-structuralism swamped things. What I found – that the two parts of the poem had the same structure despite being otherwise quite different – couldn’t be explained by any literary theory available to me at that time and place (Johns Hopkins in the late 60s and early 70s). I figured I’d have to create that theory. I’m still working on the theory, but I think the descriptive work can and should continue regardless of the state of theoretical matters.
"More immediately, up-thread I suggested empirical research on the types of reading.”
For what it is worth, I did a reading0 or reading1 of Finnegans Wake. Like the old Bible reader mentioned above, 1 hour/10 pages every day for 2 years, from start to finish and back again.
I spent a couple hours every week with ancillary and supporting material, but deliberately tried to keep that knowledge away from my reading, or at least keep it to the unconcious, using only Joyce’s internal motifs, rhythms, repetitions to accumulate meaning and sense. Too much of the analysis I had read seemed to miss the forest for the trees, to use only one particular level or path of interpretation.
This “submissive reading” had worked with Ulysses and Doctor Faustus. My goal was not understanding or interpretation, but an emotional connection with the book as a unified work, as a whole. My theory was that Joyce was deliberately making FW more difficult for those who would intellectualize, seducing them out of the text. Sort of “analysis=resistance and transference” so every time I felt myself slow down, I just relaxed into subvocalization and words as mere sounds. It wasn’t easy but the meditation and relaxation techniques paid benefits outside the reading.
I don’t know how successful I was. I was enjoying myself by the time I quit, and “Mamalujo” and the last section were making some sense. And I think I did come away with a grasp of an emotional structure to FW and a little feeling for the author’s intentions. I am not the guy who can list the Celtic influences and Shakespeare allusions.
The key to FW? Fellatio. (Sterility, oral aggression, Babelfish, seagulls, liebestod, damn that Isolde.)
FWIW, I got, perhaps, 7/8 through Ulysses & never more than started on the Wake. But years ago I saw movie realizations of both and thought the Wake movie better than the Ulysses. Better as it played on the screen. I wasn’t in much of a position to judge both movies against the texts.
But then, the filmic realization of novels is inherently problematic.
Well I am not here to defend Joyce or question your judgement. I probably shouldn’t be here at all, among the experts and professionals. I am not trained or even educated, and my readings were not productive, or productive in any sense people in this forum would recognize as valuable.
The readings were valuable to me, and more often than not literally ecstatic. Now after reading every word slowly of the Tractatus, over and over, starting again every time I finished, suspending judgement as much as possible, the physical ecstasy could have been a schizophrenic episode...but it felt like I had apprehended the work.
Joyce (or a character in Joyce) at one point quotes Aquinas in I suppose a clumsy translation from the Latin:"Beauty is the apprehension of that which is pleasing.” Not comprehension. Apprehension defined as:"to become concious of, as through the emotions or senses.” There is probably a lot of comprehension in academia but not enough apprehension. I think they are different skills.
The gentleman started the thread by saying you can’t read Finnegan’s Wake as you would read Jaws. I stand here to say that you can. When I determined that the confusion, frustration, boredom, contempt or maybe even meaning and structure etc were not in the text but in myself, I became able to appreciate genius.
"The gentleman started the thread by saying you can’t read Finnegan’s Wake as you would read Jaws. I stand here to say that you can. When I determined that the confusion, frustration, boredom, contempt or maybe even meaning and structure etc were not in the text but in myself, I became able to appreciate genius.”
When you read Jaws, did you find the meaning and structure in yourself as well? If not, doesn’t the latter sentence contradict the former?
(1) “The fish might have been asleep, save for the movement dictated by countless millions of years of instinctive continuity: lacking the flotation bladder common to other fish and the fluttering flaps to push oxygenated water through its gills, it survived only by moving” (Jaws, p. 1)
(2) “Wherapool, gayet that when he stop look time he stop long ground who here hurry he would have ever the lothst word, with a sweet me ah err eye ear marie to reat from the jacob’s and a shypull for toothsake of his armjaws at the slidepage of de Vere Foster, would and could candykissing P. Kevin to fress up the rinnerung and to ate by hart (leo I read, such a spanish, escribibis all your mycoscoups) wont to nibbleh ravenostonnoriously ihs mum to me in bewonderment of his chipper chuthor for, while that Other by the halp of his creactive mind offered to deleberate the mass from the booty of fight our Same with the holp of the bounty of food sought to delubberate the mess from his corructive mund, with his muffetee cuffes ownconsciously grafficking with his sinister cyclopes after trigamies and spirals’ wobbles pursuiting their rovinghamilton selves and godolphing in fairlove to see around the waste of noland’s browne jesus (thur him no quartos!) till that on him poorin sweat the juggaleer’s veins (quench his quill!) in his napier scrag stud out bursthright tam quam taughtropes.” (Finnegans Wake, p. 300.)
(3) “Lauryl dimonium hydrolysed collagen, Methylisothiazolinone, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) compounds, Propylene/Butylene Glycol, PVP/VA Copolymer Quaternium-7, Sodium Cocoyl Sarcosinate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Stearalkonium Chloride, Triethanolamine Laureth Sulfate” (Apparently toxic ingredients in skin care products)
(4) “Prakticky neopustil rodné mesto, viedol neobyčajne pravidelný spôsob života, o ktorom sa šíria historky: jeho pravidelnosť údajne porušil len dvakrát: keď vyšla Spoločenská zmluva (1762) a keď sa dozvedel, že vo Francúzsku vypukla revolúcia (Veľká francúzska revolúcia); učil tu na univerzite.” (Slovakian Wikipedia’s entry on Kant)
(5) “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.” (positive integers)
(6) “ROTFLMAO! OMG thats high-larious!!!” (internet slang)
When you read sentences (1) and (2) to yourself, are you really doing the same thing? Do you understand (2)? Could you translate it into another language? Could you explain it to a seven-year-old? Even if we answer in the affirmative, our explanations would probably sound more like explaining the meaning of tea leaves than of sentences.
Is reading sentence (2) more like reading sentence (1) or (3)? Is reading sentence (1) more like reading sentence (5) or (3)? Well, I understand (1) and (6) and, in a rather different way, (5). I know how to pronounce all of (3), even though I confess I don’t recognize most of the words. I could assert (1) or (6); I understand (5) perfectly but I couldn’t assert it; it has no truth value. Surely this makes some difference in how I read it—whether I can read it in my own voice, as it were. Does (2) have a truth value? The items on the lists (3) and (5) aren’t logically or rationally related to one another; (2)’s words are sometimes seem to be, and sometimes don’t. I am confident that (4) is non-nonsensical, and even true, but I have no idea what it means. I couldn’t even pronounce its words. If I try to read (5), I find it difficult to tell whether I’m reading the numerals on the screen or just chanting them by memory. Is (6) written in English? How should we decide? Shall we take a vote? Is it a fiction, since I’m not asserting it, even though I could?
What I’m trying to get at is that what we call “reading” is not one or two or even three activities. I don’t think we can put them on a single axis from “less theoretically engaged” to “more theoretically engaged,” or with more or less scholarly baggage.
Also, I’m not really convinced that what’s been called “reading0” is either logically or developmentally prior to reading1, not in the way reading1 is to reading2. So again, I think the numbering system misleads. The distinction between reading1 and 2 is (I’ve been assuming) a distinction between different ways of understanding. Reading1 involves understanding sentences. Reading2 involves understanding complete texts. (You can understand every sentence of a text and still not understand the text. Think of Philosophical Investigations.) But reading0, if I understand correctly, isn’t just reading1/2 minus understanding; it’s a whole different, wholly active, activity. And it’s an activity that can perfectly well complement reading2.
All that was tangential. My point is that the project outlined in the original post wouldn’t tell us about the psychology of reading-as-such, or even reading literature. It would only tell us about the psychology of reading realist fiction. That’s not a shortcoming of the project, not by any means. But the more modes and objects of reading you try to fit within the study, the less focus and validity you’ll be able to retain. An empirical psychological study that assumed that reading Finnegans Wake was the same activity as reading Jaws just couldn’t be very informative.
(This is all side-stepping the issue of whether or not such a project would have, or should have, any interest for literary types.)
I think that last sentence came off more rudely than I intended. What I meant was: this comment on “reading” as a family resemblance concept is not on the same subject as my earlier questions about whether psychology ought to be required reading for literary students. Of course I find the topic interesting; otherwise I wouldn’t keep leaving comments.
Bah. Something ate a long comment. I’ll try again.
I almost left the “meaning and structure” out; I probably should have. But part of the process of reading FW ibvolves discarding premature interpretations, well, never mind.
a]I propose, that uniquely among Jennifer’s examples, 2) read aloud by a knowledgable reader would make a 7-yr-old laugh. No I did not understand the excerpt, but I understood more than the Slovakian.
b]After 25 years distance from FW, I found myself in my old pattern of either trying to translate every pun and allusion; or relaxing and letting the stuff flow. Theoretically engaging FW seems to
stop the reading dead on the page, and stops most people from getting very far into the book.
c) Are we making too many assumptions about what a reading of “Jaws” involves? Might there not be a whole complex of assumptions, techniques, knowledge and shared contexts that are unconscious for the average reader? That “Jaws” is easy reading precisely because the reader is not thinking about reading as she is reading?
d) Could it be possible to somehow shove the accumulated knowledge of FW into the subconcious so as to make the two readings approach each other? That is what I tried to do.
e) Psychology for literary students? Sure. My approach to reading was partly inspired by Perls/Goodman/Hefferline figure/ground stuff. And it may be silly or outdated or ignorant, and you can laugh, but I did approach difficult books with an idea of overcoming resistance.
Bah. Something ate a long comment.
Yes, it happens. It’s happened to me several times. I always prepare a long comment offline, or take the precaution of copying a comment before hitting “submit.” That way if the Submission Monster should eat my comment, I can repost with little trouble.
Joyce (or a character in Joyce) at one point quotes Aquinas in I suppose a clumsy translation from the Latin: “Beauty is the apprehension of that which is pleasing.” Not comprehension. Apprehension defined as:"to become concious of, as through the emotions or senses.” There is probably a lot of comprehension in academia but not enough apprehension. I think they are different skills.
The gentleman started the thread by saying you can’t read Finnegan’s Wake as you would read Jaws. I stand here to say that you can.
Sounds reasonable to me. Strenuous, but plausible.
Let me offer yet another sense of reading, though it may be a version of something we’ve already mentioned. When a musician bases a performance on a notated score we say that he or she is offering a reading or an interpretation of the score. The same with an actor and a script. Further, as both music a plays are, more often than note, collective activities, such interpretations or readings must be precisely interrelated with those of other actors or musicians. In either case, there is sufficient scope for this sort of interpretive activity that some readings will be considered good while others will be deemed deficient; such judgments are likely, of course, to vary from one person to another.
What is involved in making such a reading? As I am a musician, I know that case best. Depending on the case, quite a lot or not much at all, it depends on the difficulty of the piece. But, whatever one does by way of preparation, that all is “set aside” in a performance. All that matters to the performance is the sound one makes. It is in that sound that the reading is to be apprehended. I should think it’s pretty much the same with acting, through here the prep work might involve something very like reading2. What matters is what happens in the actual performance, whether on stage, screen, sound recording, or radio.
It seems to me this is like, has an affinity with, reading0 as Ray Davis talks of it. And perhaps this is what you were doing with FW.
After 25 years distance from FW, I found myself in my old pattern of either trying to translate every pun and allusion; or relaxing and letting the stuff flow. Theoretically engaging FW seems to stop the reading dead on the page, and stops most people from getting very far into the book.
Theoretically engaging any literary text stops it on the page. It’s become a hazard of being a professional student of literature, Which is why, in part, I want to maintain a separation between reading1 and reading2.
In thinking about this thread I had a Homer Simpson moment: “D’oh!” I realized that my distinction between reading1 and reading2 is pretty much the distinction Northrup Fry made in the introduction to his Anatomy, and which I quoted <a href= “http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/from_frye_to_the_buffisstas_with_a_glance_at_hermeneutics_along_the_way/” target=new>here not so long ago.</a> When criticism became very self-conscious during the 60s and 70s, and thereafter, the sense of that distinction began to dissolve. Fry made the distinction so he could insulate critical activity from the criticism that it somehow destroys literature or the experience of literature. His defense was to insist that the two are distinct activities and thus criticism cannot possibly get in the way of the experience of literature.
Frye was writing in 1957. Things have changed a great deal since then. Criticism has become a routine academic practice. It has become the major expression of academic literary study. And the critics themselves have come to erode the distinction Fry made. That is to say, those whose activity was enabled by Fry’s insisting on a distinction between reading1 and reading2 have themselves come to undermine that distinction.
That seems to be why I find myself once again insisting on some such distinction.
More on that later.
I recently wrote the comments below about editing, or helping prepare, a manuscript, and they seem to apply equally well to this discussion of what it means to read. That’s how I read generally, too. I try to understand what the author intends and has accomplished, as best I can. All the while I may well challenge or otherwise question both the apparent intention and accomplishment (at least in bits and pieces) during a first read, let alone any subsequent ones.
I don’t think this is at all uncommon. If I choose to interrupt the experience for further reflection, of it the author forces me or prompts me to interrupt the experience to reflect or otherwise react, so be it. Inevitably this involves various “orders” of reading more or less simultaneously - a response that can be true of essentially any experience. Again, this seems to me to be common, the way people react to experience outside of any trance-like or deadened state.
It’s interesting to parse out some of the many orders/levels/varieties of cognitive activity in which we are likely to engage, in the midst of any given experience.
“When I help prepare someone else’s manuscript I feel that I face a two-fold task:
“First Order) Help the author say what they want to say the way they want to say it - to the extent that this is apparent from the text itself and any contact you’ve had with the author. That’s not necessarily easy.
“Second Order) ...If desired or necessary, initiate a potential discussion with the author by challenging the authorial intention and accomplishment in any way you care to....
“Both steps involve becoming a sort of co-author, acknowledged or not. Of course, in this sense, there are many co-authors to any book, since much of the “stuff” in any book doesn’t come from nowhere and no one or any singular person.”
I remember vividly the day I encountered reading2. It was after reading the adolescent novel curse of the Viking Grave by Farley Mowat. I was the first in my class to complete the book. I had enjoyed it. I studied the journey of the characters through northern Manitoba, Canada on maps. And then the book was over. I did not meditate on it as the preliterate philosophers may have required. I did not analyze cause and effect as the literate philosophers may have required. I did not look for archetypes or great codes.
I simply enjoyed the story as an experience in the present and then put it aside.
When I was interrogated by my seventh grade English teacher about the characters, the plot and the rest of the crap that comes with reading2. I told her I didn’t know and I didn’t care.
I could read a good story and I could write a good story improvisationally. Reading1 is reading jazz.
I recently watched an anime, Pom Poko, that impressed me deeply. A wrote a longish email to my friend Tim, who is something of an expert on manga and anime, and it seemed relevant to the distinction I’ve been trying to make (echoing Frye) between reading1 and reading2.
Here’s that email:
Now for some more on Pom Poko. But also, on meaning and such.
As you know, I’m interested in the distinction between the direct experience of the work, whatever it may be, and consequent reflection, commentary, and chatter. This seems to be a good opportunity for an informal “case study.” Why? On the one had, Pom Poko is a film and, as such, dictates the pace at which you apprehend it. You can’t stop it and puzzle things out – well, you can if you are watching it on your own DVD player, but I didn’t do that and generally don’t. And there is more or less a moment when it is over (the end credits start rolling). On the other hand, there is a lot of stuff in this film that is unfamiliar to me. Not only is the film Japanese, but it is steeped in aspects of Japanese culture that are not going to be casually known to non-Japanese. I missed things. Finally, I watched it for the first time last night, so the memory of the experience is still relatively fresh.
The first thing to say is that I quite enjoyed the film; it may be as good as any Miyazaki I’ve seen. Though, as I’ve indicated, there is lots of “stuff” in the film that is unfamiliar, I didn’t find the film strange or puzzling. It all made sense (within the implicit logic of its imaginary world). There was a section near the end, but not at the end, that reminded me a bit of the end of “The Winter’s Tale,” where the statue of Hermione comes alive and is revealed to be the real Hermione. That’s what I thought while watching this segment of the film. Now, Pom Poko is very different from Winter’s, and the scene in question did not involve a statue coming to life, though things like that do happen in the film. What actually happened seemed quite different. But it was similarly wonderful and enchanting, similarly affirmative, and deeply affecting. The scene lasted for some minutes – I may actually time it – and so did the feeling. The thing is, we were told what was about to happen before it began happening because one of the characters said, “let’s do X.” And, by that time, it was obvious that if these creatures set out to do that, that they would succeed. And they did. But the feeling didn’t come until you saw the changes happening on the screen. Knowing what was to happen is thus not the same as actually seeing it happen. Logically, what’s the difference? None. Experientially, there’s all the difference in the world.
Enough of that. First, the story. The basic idea is simple enough. The homes of the tanuki (nyctereutes procyonoides, a Japanese canid that looks like a racoon) are being destroyed by suburban development. (They were called raccoons on the English dubs, I didn’t encounter the word tanuki until I went cruising for information this AM.) They decide to resist by using their ability to transform themselves into just about anything, individually or collectively. This, I have learned, is well attested in Japanese folklore (and, to some extent, this was obvious enough in the film.) They try various tactics but, in the end, they fail. The developers destroy all but patches of their homeland and humans come to live there. Some of those who can do so, transform themselves and live among humans (a number of foxes have done the same). Those who can’t transform remain living in what remains of the forest and making “raids” into civilized territory for food scraps.
The story is told from the tanuki point of view – it seems to be narrated by one of them looking back on his life. It is also a quasi-allegory about what we are doing to ourselves.
So, what sorts of things didn’t I “get” in the film? The stuff I more or less know about, I found out in reading. A number of the songs in the movie are familiar folk songs around and about the Tanuki. Many-most Japanese would recognize at least some of them, while I didn’t recognize any of them. Now, it did seem to me at the time that this or that song was traditional, but that was only a guess. And, in any event, it wasn’t something I actually recognized. It had no resonance for me.
There was a lot of stuff like that. One magnificent sequence involves a parade that the Tanuki staged in the growing settlement. As far as I can tell, the parade was stocked with characters out of Japanese lore, Shinto, Buddhist, Confucian, other, and some stuff made up by the Ghibli folks. To one degree or another I recognized many of the creatures – not in the sense that I could tell you the Japanese name and something of that creature’s story – but in the sense that I’ve seen them, or things like them, in one place or another, including Miyazaki films. I recognized the creatures at the head of the parade as foxes (that is, tanuki taking the appearance of foxes), though they walked on hind legs and were dressed in traditional Japanese dress. After them was a marvelous “skit” involving a metamorphosis from one creature to another – one of which was a fierce tiger breathing fire – that finally just dissipated. They were followed by a group of little Japanese women dressed in white and chanting. Morphologically, they were adult (but not old), but seemed about the height of 6-year olds. Don’t know what they were, but I doubt there were a studio Ghibli invention. And so on.
Another example. One of the tanuki was 999 years old and, though a master of transformation, had finally gone a bit dotty. Many of the tanuki who were incapable of transformation joined him in a Buddhist dancing cult (that’s what the narration said). When the magnificent parade failed to convince the humans that there was other intelligent life of earth, he decided it was time to die. So his testicles and scrotum were transformed into a magnificent ship (tanuki males are folklorically noted for their large testicles), on which his followers took a journey down the river to Nirvana (again, the narrative). As the boat floated down the river, they just partied and partied and partied until the boat disappeared.
Here’s what I found in an online FAQ:
Q: Where were those Tanukis on the ship heading for?
They were going to Fudaraku (Heaven), meaning that this was a journey to death.
It’s based on the beliefs of Fudaraku, one of the old Buddhist cults. The Fudaraku cult believed that the island of Fudaraku exists on the Western sea, and by boarding a ship, you can leave your pain and suffering behind, and get to Nirvana. Throughout history, there have been some incidents where a believer was put into a ship-shaped coffin alive, and was thrown into the sea. The ship itself was modeled after Takarabune (Treasure Ship). It’s a ship on which the Seven Lucky Gods rode, with many treasures. It is supposed to be a lucky charm.
I knew nothing of the Fudaraku or the Takarabune when I was watching the film. But I didn’t actually need to know in order to suspect that there was a traditional basis for what I was seeing and to recognize that it was Buddhist. The narrator said the ship was sailing for Nirvana. What stronger clue could you want? Of course, Nirvana isn’t really a place like Olympus or Valhalla, or Avalon or Heaven, but then, are they really places?
And so on. There’s lots of lore in this movie and I missed it. Yet I still got the story. How come?
Basically, the story doesn’t depend on the details of the lore. However, I do think you need to recognize that there is a lot of lore being paraded before you and that it is tanuki that are doing this. That is very important. It is also obvious. You don’t have to be familiar with tanuki lore to see them transform on the screen. And you don’t have to be familiar with that lore to appreciate the fact that the story is being told from the tanuki POV. There is conflict between the tanuki and the humans. But it is clear that the tanuki do not regard the humans as their enemies; they explicitly decide not to even attempt to destroy the humans, because, if they succeeded, there would be no more tempura for them to eat. (Apparently they really like tempura.) Nor do the humans think of the tanuki as enemies – the kids find them rather cute.
And then there is a joke, which I didn’t even realize was there until I read the above referenced FAQ. The parade of ghosts and creatures includes brief appearances by Kiki (on her broom), Porco Rosso (in his plane), and Totoro. I hadn’t noticed them when I first watched the film. But the FAQ mentioned their appearance, so I looked for them and found them. They are small and not on the screen for long. But they are there.
So, what does this have to do with meaning? Well, there’s a good bit of literary criticism that scouts out hidden meanings for this and that, allusions, references, and so forth. It is not clear to me what sort of implicit assertion is behind this work. That is, it is not clear to me whether or not critics who do this are asserting that you have to understand all this other stuff in order to understand the text, or that you are unconsciously referencing all this stuff even as you read the text. This is done, because, well, it’s been done in the past and so shall it be done now and in the future. But, in Pom Popo we have a “text” that really does have a lot of stuff in it, but you don’t need to know it in detail in order to appreciate the text. Even if you know much of the relevant lore, you don’t have time to rehearse in your mind as the movie unfolds. There’s too much lore to do that. If you know the lore, then you can recognize characters and episodes, but that’s it. If you don’t know the lore, you can still recognize life and death and dancing and sloth and anger and conflict.
It’s an excellent film.